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Mark of the Ninja creators tackle the challenge of procedural design Exclusive
 Mark of the Ninja  creators tackle the challenge of procedural design
July 31, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

July 31, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
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More: Indie, Programming, Design, Exclusive



Around the time Klei Entertainment's teams were finishing up work on the well-received Xbox Live Arcade stealth title Mark of the Ninja, Jamie Cheng had a kernel of an idea: To combine a tactics game with themes and mechanics of espionage. The concept that would become Incognita has existed for just about a year, birthed in a long pre-production as the team explored it through prototyping.

Though recently announced, Incognita has no confirmed launch date just yet, and its details are as stealthily concealed as its themes suggest. The game is in "something like" an alpha phase -- "everything is released in alpha now, so I don't know what we're calling things anymore," laughs designer Jason Dreger -- "certainly playable, lots of the mechanics are in and some are still being developed and not in yet."

Along with technical designers Dreger and James Lantz, about nine of Klei's 30 employees are working on Incognita, with Lantz joining in after the prototype phase was complete. The core idea for Incognita starts with an interesting question: What would the experience of tactical play be like if information were a limited, precious resource -- "the major thing we're going to withhold from the player," according to Lantz? How would players get information?

"After we decided on a grid-based mechanic, we thought revealing and exploring would be exciting," Dreger adds. "We didn't know that was going to end up being the fun part."

"The vision starts to dictate what mechanics are good"

Coming to the game's vision quickly is key, suggests Dreger. "The vision starts to really dictate what mechanics are good -- normally, on my own projects, I start with mechanics I think are good and work from there. It's really important to have a vision of the emotion and mood you want your players to have and start building the game back to that. The sooner you can do that, the more concrete the project will be."

One relatively unique element of Incognita's development process so far was a long, open "blue sky" prototyping and experimentation phase, beginning with that first tactical espionage idea. Early on, the team even tried out physically prototyping a collectible card game experience.

"There were a whole bunch of paper prototypes," Dreger says. "From Magic [the Gathering]-type ideas to things much more like miniatures-based, tactical games," Dreger recalls. "We tried a card game-type idea, and the feel wasn't as espionage-ish as we would have liked. I could have spent a long time polishing that, but we decided we didn't want to go in that direction."

Although more freedom to try -- and dispose of -- ideas during the development process keeps the team from feeling constrained to a genre or tasked with imitating other games, "the 'blue sky' thing did make my pre-production time longer than it should have been," says Dreger. "If I'd had more constraints, it would have been shorter. Whether you work with constraints or [without] limits, you'll have some problems with design -- they'll just be different, a different set of problems."

"Eventually you have to put yourself somewhere on the spectrum, because the design space is too large," adds Lantz.

Procedural design

Some of Incognita's many iterations and major changes relate to its aesthetic: Initially the game was set in a steampunk-like universe that combined a mobster-style 1930s world with some elements of technology. But as development proceeded and new features related to manipulating building components emerged, the team decided that a more high-tech, "superspy" sort of aesthetic would better suit.

"Our big philosophy for this game is that knowledge is power," Lantz emphasizes -- a facet of the game that takes on new significance when you take into account that it's world and play space will be procedurally-generated. "On a personal level, what I find exciting about the game is the way it's so unexplored when you start it. It's very exciting to go through procedural worlds, and learn about them, and it's almost like you're learning as they're being generated."

"It muddles process in an interesting way," he adds. "A lot of the times you'll generate this procedural world, you see the whole world at once. Other times, you won't. Getting information is exciting in that way, because it's always different... in my mind, [procedural] is a design decision that really shapes your entire game. Every system we have is designed to work in a procedural game -- the challenge is getting something that feels designed, that feels beautiful in the same way that, say, a level of Uncharted feels beautiful. It's really hard to get that, and a lot of roguelikes end up being beautiful in their own way."

Using a broad bench of pre-fabricated assets can, the team believes, lead to a game world that feels like a hybrid between crafted and procedurally-generated, he explains. "It's like modular design: The world is made of tiny atoms of pre-designs, and then we do passes of those to make even the pre-designed stuff feel procedural."

With information at a premium and randomness making resource-gathering hard to predict -- "you enter a level and you feel like you're able to explore something, but it's totally unexplored when you get there" -- one can probably expect Incognita to delight in its own difficulty. How difficult a game of its kind should be is a regular topic of discussion on the team, especially as Incognita owes some inspiration to games like FTL and XCOM, which have had a major impact, Lantz believes, on the modern atmosphere around difficulty.

"They've made brutally hard games their own kind of thing," he says. "It's a thing that allows you to design systems that force players to learn, without feeling like it's unfair or it's too hard."

The player agents gain and improve over time, in ways partially dictated by the ways levels are generated. "And if you get, say, a certain kind of upgrade or piece of equipment, it's going to dictate how you play those odds," Dreger explains. "Your playstyle will naturally change based on what you're getting. You may not get one advantage, but you'll get a different one."

"It's randomness you can make an informed decision about," adds Lantz. "Having information be really limited, and having to discover knowledge yourself through the game mechanics makes the game really hard, and we've been trying to embrace that difficulty without making it feel unfair or random or anything like that. If players can always have their odds in mind, it feels fair."


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Comments


Jeremy Billow
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Too bad steampunk gangsters didn't worked out; I was intrigued by it. I am curious to see exactly what information is left to be held back in a tactics game since the "fog of war" concept is fairly common.

David Thomson
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Love everything Klei are about and are doing - good insight into their process here, and can't wait to see how this turns out.


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